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Can a few beers at the White House bridge the racial divide?

So the president, the professor and the police officer are going to be drinking it up and talking it out.

Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and one James Crowley are scheduled for beers Thursday at the White House — 6 p.m., at a picnic table behind the Oval Office, near Obama's daughters' swing set.

Now what?

What should they say?

What are they hoping to accomplish?

The president is aiming for "a teachable moment." He says he wants to "take a step back" and "spend a little more time listening." Gates is "pleased," and Crowley says he's looking forward to it, too.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs warned reporters that it's not going to be "a formal discussion."

"This," he said, "is about having a beer."

In so far as it can be just about having a beer when the people drinking it are a prominent black scholar from Harvard, the white cop who arrested him, and the president of these United States of America who is the progeny of a black African man and a white Midwestern woman.


• • •

Long history here.

Of, um, not so good race relations in this nation, yes, but also of diplomacy and drinking.

"Relaxing nights at the White House, with liquor involved, can be a way to defuse tensions," presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said the other day on MSNBC.

FDR, for instance, she said, had nightly cocktail parties during World War II. He made "these crazy martinis," she said.

And Lyndon Johnson? He'd have "those Republicans over," Goodwin said, and "night after night, they'd share the bourbon, share the scotch."

But that's politicians drinking with politicians. This is the president drinking with, well, relatively regular folks.

No martinis either.

Back during the Democratic primary, Obama stopped in at a sports bar in Pennsylvania and drank some Yuengling. Not "some designer beer," he said.

Last September, in a 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft, Kroft suggested that Obama didn't much like beer, and Obama reacted with good-humored umbrage.

"Steve, I had a beer last night," he said. "I don't like beer? Come on, man."

What kind of beer will be had Thursday?

Gates told the Boston Globe he prefers Red Stripe or Beck's. (Problem is the White House doesn't stock imports.) Crowley likes Blue Moon. (Yes — but: orange or no orange?) Obama? The beers of choice at his election night party were Windy City microbrews. Earlier this month, at the baseball All-Star Game in St. Louis, he had Budweiser.

Here might be the first moment of compromise.

You don't always get exactly what you want.

Sam Adams perhaps?

• • •

By now, you know the details of the incident. Probably more than enough. Real quick then: July 16. Cambridge, Mass. Gates, the black Harvard professor, arrives at his home, finds his door jammed, tries to jimmy it open. Neighbor takes note, calls cops. Crowley, the white local police sergeant, shows up, asks what's going on. Words fly, Gates ends up arrested for "disorderly conduct," but charges are dropped. Then Obama says in a news conference that the police acted "stupidly."


The president wanted that word back. That was no way to advance the national race-relations conversation, sometimes dormant, never done. He called Crowley to say sorry. He called Gates, too, and before long there was this idea ... brewing.

Now it's not only an idea. It's on the calendar.

But that doesn't mean the guests are back-slapping, drinking buddies.

Gates has talked about suing Crowley. Crowley has talked about suing Gates.

Gates says he'd be surprised if he doesn't get an apology.


"Sgt. Crowley did what a good police officer does, and his track record is impeccable," said Rich Roberts, the spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, which has its main office in Sarasota. "To turn this thing into some kind of a racial issue is a major disservice both to the officer and the police community."

Turn it into? It's nothing but a racial issue.

"The issue of racial profiling still needs to be addressed," Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington office of the NAACP, told the Los Angeles Times.

So what now?

We called some local mediators.

"It's a step in the right direction just giving people the opportunity to talk face to face with someone," Clearwater mediator Charles Castagna said, "just that opportunity to say, 'This is how you hurt me.' "

"Sometimes it's not what you say," said Diane McSpiritt, a mediator in St. Petersburg. "It's how you say it.

"I think the optimal resolution would be to work together to educate."

The best possible resolution, they suggested, and really the only reasonable, positive resolution, is that there isn't a resolution per se. There will be no picnic-table panacea. It could be, they said, less an end and more a beginning.

"This can result in an extraordinary national dialogue," Tampa mediator Lynn Cole said. "Seriously. Lots of good can come from this."

And if the beer summit of the summer of '09 starts to go south?

A humble suggestion from the short list of bad-date backup plans:

"Here. Have another."

Michael Kruse can be reached at or (727) 893-8751.

Can a few beers at the White House bridge the racial divide? 07/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 1:18pm]
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